BlackBerry Torch 9810 review: same package, new insides

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At first blush, the BlackBerry Torch 9810 looks an awful lot like the year-old 9800; the slide-out keyboard, the capacitive touchscreen, the unified lock/mute rocker on the top… Even stills of the operating system look identical to OS 6, an update the 9800 helped launch last summer. After playing with the phone in person for even a second, however, you can tell it runs a hell of a lot faster than any of the older BlackBerry handsets out there.
But for all of its performance enhancements, should we really be that interested in a phone that looks, feels, and at its core functions the same as a year-old device? Check out our full review below to find out.

The Good
  • Smooth, responsive software
  • Best of both full touchscreen and QWERTY keyboard worlds
  • Decent battery life compared to other OS 7 phones
The Bad
  • Samey OS and form factor
  • Poor mute/lock key placement
  • Few high-quality apps

Hardware

It's hard to say too much about the 9810's surface hardware that hasn't already been said about the 9800. The slide-out keyboard, though a little small, is still extremely usable, and stands up to RIM's hallmark of making the best keyboards available on a smartphone. Of course, the Bold 9900 is the lap of luxury if keyboard comfort is high on your list of priorities. The screen is noticeably sharper than its predecessor, and there's lots going on underneath the hood that sets it apart too, but more on that later.

Design

Much like its predecessor, the Torch 9810 does a good job of balancing the benefits of a big-ish touchscreen and a real QWERTY keyboard. The portrait orientation of the slider mechanism keeps the phone ideally suited for one-handed use, though you can always summon the virtual keyboard in landscape for longer messages. Of course, OS 7's touchscreen keyboard now has a quick hide bar just above the top row of keys, which can be easy to accidentally press when typing quickly. My biggest design niggle for the 9810, like many BlackBerry phones before it, is the lock/mute rocker on the top of the phone. Either key is very easy to accidentally press, which means it's prone to unlock when going top-down into a pocket, or start playing loud, tinny music at inopportune moments.  Luckily, RIM seems to have ditched this layout with their newer devices, like the Bold 9900/30, Curve 9350/60/70, and Torch 9850/60.

As far as the overall look goes, the Torch 9810 is still pretty smooth, though I can't say I'm a huge fan of the extra-shiny silver finish. The plastic casing doesn't provide much in the way premium feel like the 9900/30, but it does have a matte smoothness to it that's nice enough to the touch until long-term wear and tear dings it up.

Build Quality

Although there's a reasonable concern about build quality when it comes to slider phones, I never had any issues with wearing out the spring on my 9800, and I have no reason to believe the 9810 would be any worse off in the long haul;  the same goes for the keyboard. The side convenience keys have a nice rubbery covering that gives a good sense of protection from catching or grit. I didn't get any scratches on the screen, despite the phone sharing a pocket with loose change occasionally over my week with the phone, but that doesn't mean the casing is invulnerable to getting banged up; the few tumbles my old 9800 took shows plastic clearly where the silver paint chipped.

Camera

The BlackBerry Torch 9810 is toting a 5 megapixel camera with 720p video recording and an LED flash. It's a little moody when it comes to conditions; if you're outdoors and have plenty of light, generally you should be alright, but overcast days or low light conditions without flash produce a lot of noise. I don't tend to spend a lot of time fiddling with scene modes, like party, text, or landscape, but I wouldn't mind some more refined controls over contrast and brightness like some other phones out there have. One quirk I'm finding in the OS 7 devices is that shots aren't rotating properly based on how you're holding the phone - they're all apparently captured from the same orientation, which makes for a little bit of work when you sideload shots onto your computer.

Video recording is definitely good enough for casual usage, and hooks in the native camera app make it easy to share via social networking or e-mail. I'm a little irked that auto-focus actually needs to be highlighted as a feature now that the Bold 9900 only has a fixed-focus extended depth of field camera, but as you can see in the sample below, the video camera does a solid job all around. Generally, the camera on the Torch 9810 performed about as well as I would expect any high-end smartphone.

Portrait, daylight

Low-light, flash

Dog, slobbery

Landscape, overcast

 

Software

The BlackBerry 9810 ships with OS 7.0.0.261, which will look and feel very familiar to anyone who has spent some quality time with OS 6 of yesteryear. The highlight feature improvements are voice-activated universal search, augmented reality support, and a new 3D-capable graphics rendering engine. As always, the 9810 handles e-mail, instant messaging, and social networking like a boss, especially with the combo of a nicely-sized screen and a real physical keyboard. Universal search lets you access on-device data or web searches simply by starting to type from the home screen, and now the addition of voice functions lets you do it even when you don't have time to stop and fiddle with the keyboard.

Despite the new possibilities opened up by the speedier processor, there aren't a lot of the high-performing apps available that you might see on Android and iOS. Downloading what is available for BlackBerry is a fine experience, though - carrier billing for App World is in place, there's a solid desktop browser portal, and the recent revamp freshens up the overall look and feel. I'm not entirely convinced that gap in quantity or quality will be filled in the near future, since most devs are likely holding out to see how RIM will handle the switch over of the QNX-based operating system on the PlayBook tablet to their smartphones. Android app emulation may axe the necessity for some devs to port their creations right away, though RIM may very well offer some backwards compatibility with the old Java-based apps in QNX too, which means anything made for BlackBerry now could still find a home in the next batch of RIM phones. Either way, the selection and quality of BlackBerry apps is in something of a stasis while we figure out what happens next in the developer ecosystem.

In terms of overall performance, there's still some occasional hourglassing where the device is unresponsive, which is disheartening after spending so much time waiting through them on older BlackBerry devices. The general idea with jumping to a 1.2 GHz processor was that we wouldn't have to deal with any of that anymore, but overall, the experience is much snappier than before, and if you're tired of dealing with lag on your BlackBerry for two or three years, the 9810 will be a breath of fresh air. You'll probably be slightly less impressed if making the jump from the iPhone or (to a lesser extent) Android.

Browser

The WebKit browser in OS 7 runs super-smoothly, and destroys the old preconception that BlackBerry can't handle the web. The only caveat there is that it doesn't do Flash, but I suspect that will change once RIM releases QNX-running phones early next year. As is, I could keep 9 tabs and up open without any issues in performance, pinch-to-zoom is liquid and responsive, and the browser scores extremely well in various JavaScrapt, CSS, and HTML5 tests. The screen size is generous enough that browsing is a pleasure, and though the 9850/60 might have an extra half-inch of screen real estate, I'd happily sacrifice it for the solid keyboard.

All of the usual features are there, like sending web pages to friends through a number of different channels, bookmarks, and full-screen viewing with a collapsible address bar. Besides the absence of Flash, I really have no complaints about the web experience on any of the newer BlackBerry models, thanks in no small part to the speedier processor and oodles of RAM.

Multimedia

The BlackBerry Torch 9810 handles music and videos about as amply as any BlackBerry before it. The native music player is virtually unchanged, and still offers the same categorized view for albums, artists, and individual tracks, complete with lots of search tie-ins, and Cover Flow-esque album art view. Universal search still only searches individual tracks, which isn't great when you want to throw a whole artist on shuffle, or plow through a particular album. As I mentioned earlier, the mute button on top makes for some inconvenient accidental music playing, but the volume keys double for track skipping, which I've always found really handy, and wish other smartphone manufacturers would try out rather than forcing owners to open up the software media controls. There are plenty of solid music apps to help you get your fix too - there's an Amazon MP3 store to buy individual tracks DRM-free, Slacker is preloaded if you want some free streaming tunes, and then there's the new BBM Music app currently running in closed beta. I'm not sure if I'd pay $5/month to be subjected to the musical taste of my BBM contacts (especially if they're just there for business), but if you spend a lot of time on BlackBerry Messenger, it might be a good fit for you.

The 3.2-inch 640 x 480 touchscreen is a good enough size to watch the odd YouTube video, and I would even end up watching a half-hour shows once in awhile, but not quite as readily as on the 3.7-inch screen on Torch 9850/60. I had a few issues getting a 720p WMV file to run, but generally speaking there were no issues, and no lack of content with the preloaded Podcasts application. There's 8 GB of on-board storage, which is a particularly nice touch if there's some media you want to hold onto more or less permanently and don't need to bother storing it on the memory card. For light media consumers, 8 gigs may even be enough to eliminate the need for microSD altogether.

Call Quality And Battery Life

I had a much better time with battery life on the Torch 9810 than the other OS 7 BlackBerry devices. Sure, it still has the 1.2 GHz processor and 640 x 480 display making some higher-than-usual demands, but the 9810 has the bonus of keeping the same 1270 mAH battery as the original Torch. The Bold 9900/30 and Torch 9850/60 were both desperate to drop a few millimeters of thickness, and the battery was the biggest casualty in that battle. The only way I could kill off the battery by noon on the 9810 was to stream music non-stop over HSPA+ since early morning. The 9810 could get through a full afternoon of pumping out local music over Bluetooth, and generally get through a day of moderate usage on a single charge. While I wouldn't be quite as care-free about my battery use as on the 9800, I'm definitely more relaxed using the 9810 than the 9900/30 or 9850/60.

As for the actual calling part of the phone, I didn't drop any calls over the Rogers HSPA+ network, though I can't guarantee the same performance on AT&T. Volume and clarity are fine, and the phone app has a lot of productivity features available, including a conference calling utility that plugs into the native calendar.

The Final Take

In some ways, it's easy to think that the 9810 is what the 9800 should have been. After all, 1.2 GHz processors weren't that crazy back then, and providing a fluid, responsive user experience at that point would have surely helped RIM avoid their massive stock crash within recent months. On the other hand, it's becoming clear that it took serious external pressure to get RIM to put aside their obsession with efficiency to properly compete at the upper-tier. The price you end up paying is in battery life more than anything else, but the 9810 handles that demand better than its OS 7 siblings thanks to the larger battery.

The software pretty much breaks even in the end. There are still the usual quirks, like having to reboot your phone after installing certain apps, truncation in longer incoming e-mails, and the lack of real two-way Gmail sync over BIS, but at the end of the day, the BlackBerry 9810 is still really good at handling messaging of all sorts - IM, social networking, texting, and e-mail. Unfortunately, despite the performance enhancements, there's really not much else the 9810 excels in. The 3.2-inch screen makes it decent (but not great) for web browsing, and though the new processor makes pinching to zoom very smooth, there's still no Flash support to enable embedded video streams. There are new doors opened up to developers through augmented reality, BlackBerry Messenger, and 3D graphics APIs, but the app selection and quality is still limited, nevermind the fact that the looming switch to QNX early next year casts a shadow over the future of any apps released for the Torch 9810.

Of course, if your needs are modest, and you don't see them exploding in the near future, the 9810 is a solid, smooth messaging experience while providing the best of both touchscreen and QWERTY keyboard worlds. Of the latest breed of OS 7 BlackBerry devices, I'd pick the 9810 over the others - even the Bold 9900/30, primarily due to the better battery life.

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  • http://profiles.google.com/kentuckyloan joel lobb

    Nice Review Simon. You nailed it. I think I prefer the 9850

  • Rocmon

    sweet device, so – is there enough good to drop $700 to replace my 9800?

    • http://www.intomobile.com/ Simon Sage

      I don’t think so… Maybe if you had a 9700 or a Tour. Hold out for the New Year and see what QNX brings to the table.

  • Advaita2

    Dear Simon..please clarify .. When I receive a mail in which a few columns & rows of data from an MS Excel sheet has been copied & pasted on the main body of the mail…will I be able to see the rows & columns as it is in my inbox mail…currently in my Curve, it appears as palin text with no rows or columns showing… Thanks in advance, Mani

  • Toufic Habli

    I did change my 9800 to 9810…. i like the 9810 it is much faster….. the Bold 9900 is ugly despite of the keybaord luxury…

  • Rudytorres

    Please help, my BB Torch 9810 keeps opening messages automatically, LED is not longer a signal  for me to new mail message … Its driving me crazy …..

  • AMAR

    plz suggest…BB 9900 or 9810…?? considering the battery life in both…

  • http://www.blackberry-unlocking.org/unlock-blackberry/9100 Blackberry unlocking

    It’s a nice device, I more like the new Blackberry bold 9790 but the Blackberry Torch 9810 is also not bad and the OS7 makes everything looks much nicer then on the Blackberry Torch 9800.. 

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